November 13, 2013 8:54AM

New Study Explains How and Why Parents Choose Private Schools

Why do parents choose a particular school? What information do they consider in making that choice? Do they prioritize high standardized test scores, rigorous college preparation, moral or religious instruction, or something else?

This morning, the Friedman Foundation released a new study, "More Than Scores: An Analysis of How and Why Parents Choose Private Schools," that sheds light on these questions. The study surveyed 754 low- and middle-income parents whose children received scholarships from Georgia GOAL, a scholarship organization operating under Georgia's scholarship tax credit law.

The study's findings provide analysts and advocates across the education policy spectrum with much to consider. 

Consistent with previous research, the study found extremely high levels of parental satisfaction with 98.6 percent of respondents answering that they are "satisfied" or "very satisfied" with their chosen school relative to their previous experience at a government school. Opponents of school choice argue that we should focus our efforts on improving district schools, but we should not expect that any one school will be able to meet the needs of all students living in a given geographic area. This study and prior research clearly demonstrate that the district schools are failing to meet the needs of a significant portion of the population.

Moreover, contrary to those school choice opponents who argue that low-income and especially black families "don’t know how to make good choices for their children," the study found that "low-income parents, single parents, African-American parents, and parents with less than a college education are willing and able to be informed and active education consumers on behalf of their children." For example, about 93 percent of parents indicated that they would be "willing to take three or more time-consuming steps to obtain the desired information" about their children's potential schools (e.g. - taking a tour, consulting with friends, or attending an informational meeting). The authors note that the studies findings cannot be generalized to the population at large since the survey sample was limited to parents who already completed the application process and received scholarships. That said, even the poorest people in the poorest nations on the planet have proven willing and able to select a quality education for their children. 

But the study's most interesting findings should give pause to supporters of school choice who seek to mandate standardized testing and other top-down reforms like Common Core.

The survey asked parents to identify the top five reasons they chose their child's particular school using a list of 21 options plus "other."

The top five reasons why parents chose a private school for their children are all related to school climate and classroom management, including “better student discipline” (50.9 percent), “better learning environment” (50.8 percent), “smaller class sizes” (48.9 percent), “improved student safety” (46.8 percent), and “more individual attention for my child” (39.3 percent).

By contrast, standardized testing ranked very low on the list of parental priorities:

Student performance on standardized test scores is one of the least important pieces of information upon which parents base their decision regarding the private school to which they send their children. Only 10.2 percent of the parents who completed the survey listed higher standardized test scores as one of their top five reasons why they chose a particular private school for their child.

These findings provide another reason why school choice programs should not require testing. Parents value different aspects of education very differently. Standardized testing creates a powerful incentive toward conformity, which diminishes the diversity of educational options available. Moreover, the findings indicate, at the very least, that parents recognize the limitations of standardized testing as useful measurement of learning and perhaps indicate a strong demand for schools that are not part of the standardized testing regime.

To determine what sort of information parents seek when making their decision, the survey asked them to rank 22 pieces of information as important or not. The top three "important" pieces of information were the average class size (80.2 percent), whether the school is accredited, (70.2 percent), and the curriculum and course descriptions (69.9 percent). Standardized test scores came in sixth place with barely more than half of respondents (52.8 percent) ranking it as "important." As the authors note, that is "a somewhat low ranking relative to the disproportionate emphasis that many educators, politicians, policymakers, business leaders, and the media are placing on national standards and standardized testing." Likewise, when asked to identify the most important information, only 5.4 percent of parents selected standardized test scores.

Whereas most "accountability" reformers emphasize testing, the study demonstrates that parents hold schools directly accountable and punish lack of performance or transparency by voting with their feet. As the study's authors conclude:

Because they risk losing students to other K–12 schools in the educational marketplace, private schools have an incentive to voluntarily provide the information desired by parents. Based on the survey results, the failure of a private school to provide information would (79 percent) or might (20 percent) negatively impact a parent’s decision on whether to send his or her children there.

In other words, to the extent that some parents find standardized testing to be a useful tool, the market creates an incentive for schools to test their students and report the results. But whereas the some education reformers would mandate testing for all students, a market allows parents who distrust or dislike testing to choose to avoid it while still empowering them to find the information they need to make an informed decision about their child's education.